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Ajla: From Bosnia to the Columbia University. Were dreams only enough to do that?

This interview is a part of the Millennial Champions series featuring the most creative, hard-working, and successful young people globally. More info here.

HS: Hey, Ajla! I face a big challenge where to start since you have done so many things and you have so much amazing stuff to share with our readers. But before we move to your “American dream” and studies in NYC at Columbia University, I want you to introduce yourself. Tell me why, even from early primary school you wanted “something more”, than just to be a “regular student” who does only things she is supposed to do. How did you find an initial inspiration and motivation for so many extracurricular activities and sports? How did you overcome the challenge that you can’t do it and the social & family pressure that you “should concentrate on your school duties and then on everything else”?

Thank you for these overwhelming compliments. I really appreciate them, especially coming from someone like yourself. I hope I will be able to put into words all of my experiences, struggles, and lessons learned, and potentially inspire and help young people around the world. To start, the reason I always wanted more is the fact that at one point in my life I had nothing. I was born a few months before the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and luckily, I don’t remember much from that period. However, I remember very vividly the years after the war. Living in a country recovering from complete destruction I was sentenced to enjoy the little I had, to struggle for more, and to dream about things that always seemed so distant, so unattainable. I remember TV toy commercials being my favorite fun. I enjoyed them because they were informing me about the toys that I never had, could not afford, but which existed somewhere out there. As I was growing up, TV commercials were replaced by documentaries about the world, travel channels, fashion programs, college TV shows…All of these have taught me one thing: there is a better life than the one I currently live. And, I started dreaming about it. That became my inspiration and motivation.

So, stay informed.

To continue, I wanted more than I had, more than my parents could afford, and even more than my whole country could provide. However, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, like in any other country, things don’t simply fall from the sky - unless we are talking about grenades. They do. They fall out of nowhere and destroy in one second what you have built your whole life. One of them hit my apartment three days after my mum came from the hospital with my little brother. Luckily, we all survived. Anyways, the war was over and I had dreams. Now I needed to find a way to make them come true. And, it doesn’t take a genius to realize that being just a “regular student” wouldn’t do it. So, my still ongoing bittersweet journey began. Already in elementary school, I started taking every opportunity that presented itself. I joined a dance team just to learn that I am not enough of a lady for that. I participated in singing competitions just to learn that I cannot really sing, but that I am actually really good at writing poetry. I joined a math team at my school, just to learn that, even though I was quite good, I still preferred physics. In a meantime, I also tried my luck at informatics and web design, Spanish, journalism, piano, and theater. I ran my own radio show, volunteered with children with special needs, tried to preserve the environment, joined various NGOs, and was even invited to be an actress in Mexican Telenovelas after I sent an application through some online talent platforms. I never went through it. I also was not good at all of these activities. But I tried. And I failed. And, I tried again. In the process, I discovered so much about myself. I learned what I love but cannot do, what I can do but hate doing, and what I love and can do and love doing. I learned about my strengths and weaknesses, gained knowledge and experience, and I met amazing people who influenced me and helped me later in my life. Eventually, my dreams converted into aspirations and successes. I became a national champion in alpine skiing, and brown belt karate, and at the age of twelve I published my first poetry book, named “My Dreams”.

So, go try. And, go fail.

To answer your last two questions, I never really was afraid of failure. Not because I am some sort of supernatural being, but because I developed a technique that helped me mitigate fear and rejection with hope and excitement. I call it “Plan B”. Basically, I attempted to always have at least two equally interesting things going on at the same time. If one failed, which happened many times, I always had another one to console me, excite me, and keep me dreaming and hoping. Finally, to conclude, I would like to comment on “social and family pressure to concentrate on school duties first”. While I have very strong arguments against the contemporary educational system, I am also aware that until it changes we need to balance school duties with everything else. I always had my grades at their best, and I cannot emphasize how helpful this was for two reasons. Firstly, which is very obvious, a transcript is often an essential part of any application. Secondly, most importantly, respect shown to a teacher and the subject she is teaching pays off. I am not saying you must be valedictorian, but if you show your interest and your respect for your teacher’s passion (because that is what those boring history and biology classes are for them), you will earn their trust, and recommendation letters.

So, go make a “Plan B”. And, go learn that your teachers are people just like you and me.

HS: It’s time for your “American dream” to start. How did you come up with the idea to study in the United States? Can you share with us your story during the challenging application period, getting a scholarship, and some tips and advice may be…? I guess you received a full scholarship? What helped you to get admitted to such a prestigious University, as Columbia? Have you ever had any doubt you won’t make it or a temptation to give up? How did you overcome those challenges?

Before I answer these questions, I need to go approximately two years in the past before the college period. The answer to the first set of questions summarizes my life until the age of sixteen. However, my life-changing opportunity presented itself only a year after. I was a high school sophomore when I heard about the United World Colleges Organization which makes education a force to unite people, nations, and cultures for peace and a sustainable future. I sent an application, and the next year, I found myself studying in Italy with 200 students from 89 countries. At the United World College of the Adriatic (UWCAd), I continued discovering myself. I tried climbing and digital photography. I volunteered with immigrants, and elderly people, and worked on conflict resolutions with students from Palestine and Israel. I also spent a week in Sicily working with prisoners and with children. Ultimately, I brought eight of my colleagues from six different countries to Bosnia-Herzegovina, where I organized volunteering with children with special needs and children victims of war. Apart from having lived the two most fulfilling years of my life at UWCAd, I also got a chance to easily apply to colleges around the world. My personal application process was made easier by UWCAd since they provided SAT books, and counseling, and even had college representatives come and interview us. However, don’t get me wrong. I still had to do all of the studying, essay writing, and decision-making. And, again, on top of all that, I had to take care of my grades. I won’t lie-this was one of the most stressful times. But, I survived. I learned how to manage my time, and I will attempt to list a few steps that may be helpful.

  • Don’t simply “come up” with the idea to study in the United States, but always have it as an option together with a few schools in your home country, and some other region of your choice; in my case that was Europe. This is the “Plan B” I was talking about. You can never know what fortunate or unfortunate event awaits you, and you better be ready for both.
  • Be open-minded, but set a limit. Applying to a huge number of schools is a stressful process, and it will prevent you from showing the best of yourself in applications, and also from enjoying your regular life. Remember that there is a difference between quantity and quality. I personally advise applying for about six schools: two in the United States, two in your home country, and two in a region of your choice.
  • Aim high, but stay realistic. Yes, I applied to a prestigious Columbia University. But, I also applied for a few so-called “safety choices”. I would strongly advise you to do the same.
  • When choosing what schools to apply to, before anything else, think about what will make you happy. I know this sounds cliché, but it is not. I met dozen of people who studied at less-known schools but succeeded in their lives because they were happy, motivated, and aspired. Oppositely, I met a lot of Ivy League graduates who still struggle both with their career and their personal lives. So, when choosing schools, think about the place you will live, the kind of people you will be surrounded by, and even the climate.
  • When it comes to the application process, acceptance letters and scholarships, the only advice I can give is: to think about it waaaaaay before. To be accepted to any prestigious school, you must be different and you must have worked hard. Singing, dancing, skiing, karate, math, physics, informatics, climbing, volunteering, and writing were all things that helped me become the person I am today and things that showed my character’s development to people reading the applications. So start as early as possible, and take as many chances as you can. You will eventually get to know yourself, and your preferences, and you will succeed in at least one thing. Then, all it takes is to learn how to put that in words.

To conclude, keep in mind that even if you follow each and every step as carefully as possible, you might not get accepted to a school of your first choice. However, the whole point of the method I explained is that you won’t be left without anything. You will still have at least one other offer, and if you choose schools carefully, you won’t even be disappointed. These are the steps I followed, and they have taken me to where I am today. They might not be so exciting, but they were safe. I got accepted to Columbia University. I received a full scholarship that covered tuition and fees, housing, and personal expenses such as health insurance and flights. Needless to say, without this financial aid, I would not even be able to pay a visit to Columbia’s campus.

HS: But once again, you did not accept to be “one more regular student”, but together with your regular student’s duties, you engaged yourself in hundreds of other activities: from internships in international organizations, helping people in your country to big student conferences (as One Young World is). Before you share those experiences with us, tell me why you did not accept AGAIN to be one more student who will complete his studies and have only a degree to offer. Can you share some of the most interesting internships, conferences, projects, and experiences with us? How did you manage to get selected for them, how did you overcome challenges, and how did all those experiences change you as a person? Do you believe all those experiences helped and how, helped you in becoming one of seven the best students in the United States (according to the magazine Glamour)?

In 2010, I first set foot at Columbia’s campus land. The only things I had with me were two big and one small suitcase. I did not know anyone. I did not know anything about the country, the culture, the social norms, or the educational system. I was excited and equally terrified. But, in the back of my mind, I knew this is my one chance to succeed. I only needed to find a way to use it best. A lot of things were different, but the principle was the same: stay informed, try, fail, try again, have a “Plan B”, network, and work hard. Not being a regular high school student has brought me here. Now I needed not to be a regular college student. So, I started my journey, taking every chance possible.

I majored in Economics and minored in the Italian Language. I also took a lot of interesting classes in other fields, for my personal pleasure. However, when it came to extracurricular activities, I had a hard decision to make. It was not feasible for me to be active both on-campus and off-campus while having a part-time job as an audio-visual technician, which was paying bills. I chose the off-campus option not knowing where it will take me.

True, I was a Sophomore Class Representative for a year, and I often visited various events organized by different on-campus groups. However, my focus stayed outside of the Columbia gates. I surfed the Internet, asked friends for recommendations, and kept my eyes wide open for any interesting opportunity. Soon, I began sending out applications for internships, youth conferences, and various grants. A lot of them got rejected; I was underqualified, overqualified, too young, too old, and without relevant paperwork. But, a few did work. And they worked out because of my hard work, sleepless nights, a little bit of luck, and some good karma. In the four years I spent as an undergraduate at Columbia, I had an internship at Amnesty International USA and the United Nations Virginia Gildersleeve International Fund. I also worked on smaller projects with JP Morgan and UNICEF, and I even managed to study abroad in Copenhagen, both at Danish Institute for Study Abroad and at Copenhagen Business School. I was interviewed by CNN and FOX News about the projects I worked on. I won numerous prizes for leadership and academic success...all of which led to my election as one of the seven best students in the United States by Glamour Magazine.

As my success increased, a certain responsibility to give back followed. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the selfless help of the people I knew. And I believe my time came to help those in need, to share my knowledge, and to give hand to those willing to stand up. Plus, all the good things come back. You have to trust me on this one. Led by this belief, I implemented a few projects aiming to help others. In 2010, I joined the biggest youth organization “One Young World” with which I worked on “Missing Millennium Development Goal” - an initiative that attempts to lobby the United Nations to add Interfaith Dialogue and Collaboration for Peace to a list of the UN Millennium Development Goals. With my colleagues, I presented it in front of the Secretary-General Bank Ki-Moon. Many years later, the initiative is still alive. Furthermore, in 2011, after I won a small grant from Oxford-Cambridge Alumnae, I organized a workshop Bead the Difference. I taught girls from low-income families in my hometown how to design, make and sell jewelry, and profits were used to purchase school supplies. My next project was in 2012 when I built a school playground for children in a small Bosnian village, which was devastated by war. The project was named Reconciliation Through Play. Finally, the latest project I implemented was in 2013 when I built a Safe House Hope for victims of domestic violence, again in my hometown. I must be honest. Most of the time I had no idea what I was doing. I used Google to learn how to write business plans, I constantly asked for help, and I struggled. But I did not give up. And I always had a few of those plans B.

After college, I got my Master’s degree at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, where I studied International Finance and Economic Policy. I also interned at the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe in Geneva, and I tried out the NYC startup scene working for iDecisionGames and Omega Point Research. Life took me to San Francisco where I had my own startup – Creos Group. I wasn’t there for a long time before I came on a vacation to my home country and decided to stay. You may ask me why? The answer is simple – it excited me. Almost 3 years since that, I still live in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I am married and I have a baby boy. I founded my own company and I work as a consultant for a few other ones. I use my free time to travel the world. I read a lot. I constantly try new things. I fail. I succeed. And I always have a Plan B. Nothing really changed.

HS: What would you advise to all those young people across the Globe who are disappointed with all black statistics on youth unemployment, confused about what they should do in order to build their career and happiness, and to all those who are thinking about giving up from their dreams, passions, and goals? I am sure your amazing story and experience will change the lives of millions of them.

I would advise them to flip their finger at all of that. I mean, what were my odds of succeeding? I was born and raised in a war. My family’s house was burned when I was two. A grenade devastated my family’s new apartment when I was four. I spent my life living in a country with three presidents, less educated than I am, who never cared to provide for young people (or anyone else for that matter). But I did not care. I had my dreams, and I worked hard to make them come true. Everything else would have been excused.

So, keep in mind these few things.

Success does not equal money. Success is about honor, respect, passion, and love. Money only comes as a prize. Thus, while climbing the ladder of success don’t focus on money only, but think about the people who believe in you and who are helping you. They are the ones who will bring you success, but they can also easily take it away from you. Because a leader without followers is nothing but a fool. Also, never forget where you came from and who you used to be. That is the only place where you will be able to return if everything fails, and the only place from which your success will look as glamorous as when you dreamed about it.

Finally, nothing I said matters unless you work hard, so go and WORK HARD, and when you want to give up WORK EVEN HARDER.

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